This Sunday is Easter. I myself did not grow up in a particularly religious household, though occasionally I would put on a (very) ruffly pink dress and go to Easter service with my grandpa. Mostly Easter in my house was a day for finding plastic eggs full of candy hidden in Kleenex boxes and shoes; a day for making myself sick on Cadbury Eggs; and a day for my mom to tell me about the Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965, which might explain why I was such an anxious child.
Hot cross buns were also not a part of my Easter celebration growing up. In fact, prior to experimenting with them this week, I had never eaten them and, perhaps like you, I only really knew about them from the “Hot Cross Buns” nursery rhyme.
An English tradition, the buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter). Lent of course began with semlor, to use up sugar and fats in the house, which are forbidden during Lent. The other delicious bookend are these slightly different spiced buns.
While there is no documentation that shows exactly when the buns were invented, every one of their many origin stories start with a monk. Some theories put their creation back as early as the 12th century. Others say it was a monk in St. Albans in the 14th century.
Like many of the recipes I have researched that have a religious link, hot cross bun ingredients are meant to symbolize historical events. Remember Hannah Spiegelman’s haroset? And, sometimes they’re a little dark. The cross on top of the bun, of course, recalls the cross that Jesus died on. The various spices inside symbolize the spices used to embalm Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (see what I mean?), and the dried fruit is meant to remind Christians they no longer have to eat plain food, because the resurrection is at hand.
The buns have had a life beyond Good Friday as well. In the past, the buns were sometimes grated up and used for medicinal purposes. Superstition also states that buns baked on Good Friday will never spoil. In earlier times, they were sometimes hung from the rafters for a whole year for good luck, which hints at their… ahem… hardiness. Those buns would be replaced every Good Friday. They were also said to protect from evil spirits and prevent shipwrecks when taken on sea voyages.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, laws were passed to keep people from selling hot cross buns on any day other than Good Friday, Christmas, or during burials, because they were too sacred for any other day. Bun fans were able to prepare their own in their homes to get around the law, but if they were caught, this apparently benevolent law required them to give up their buns to the poor. Luckily, we are allowed to bake hot cross buns any time we want.
For this recipe, I essentially used a variation of the cinnamon roll recipe I used for my mom’s pecan rolls. (And I want to apologize for my shaky glaze job. I’m not a hot cross buns pro yet!)
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 9 buns.
6 tbsp sugar
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup milk, warmed to 115-125 degrees
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, very soft
For egg wash: 1 egg, plus 1 tbsp milk, whisked together
For glaze: 1 cup confectioners sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp cardamom (optional), and 4 tsp milk, whisked together
Combine the sugar, yeast, raisins, and warm milk in a large bowl. Whisk to combine and allow to sit for about five minutes to allow the yeast to activate.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine.
Once the yeast mixture has become frothy, whisk in one egg until combined. Then add the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until mostly combined. It will look quite shaggy and dry at this point. Add the butter and continue stirring just until the dough begins to form a ball.
Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until the the ball forms a little more. The surface will not be smooth, but a ball should be well-formed.
Place the dough into a large clean bowl, cover with a dishtowel, and allow to sit in warm place for an hour. (Note: I always had a little trouble with yeast doughs in my house, I think because it’s so dry. However, I have started raising my dough by covering it and placing it into the oven, with a pot of boiled water on the lower rack. Yeast loves warm dry places, so this gives it a nice spa where it can grow. It works for me every time now.)
Either grease an 8×8-inch pan, or line it with parchment. After an hour, pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 9 equal parts and roll each into a ball with your hands. Place each ball into the pan. It’s OK if they are touching. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 45 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk together your egg wash. In a larger bowl, whisk together your glaze ingredients. (The glaze will be fairly thick, which is good). Spoon the glaze into a plastic baggie.
Brush the egg wash over the buns. Bake for about 20-22 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top.
Remove and allow to cool. Snip a very tiny corner off the baggie filled with glaze. Place a cross of glaze across the top of each bun.
They are best enjoyed the same day that you bake them. (Unless you take them with you to sea, in which case…)
If you don’t like raisins, skip them! Or, you could use currants or other dried fruit. As for glazing, I’m a fan of adding the crosses before the buns go into the oven. These crosses are supposed to be hot, right?! Jk. But you can absolutely wait until the buns cool and add the glaze then. I did… both, as you can see. I really like glaze. Especially this cardamom glaze situation right here.
If you are celebrating Easter this Sunday, happy Easter! If not, you should make these buns anyway!